I’ve been hard on the Grammy Awards. For more than a decade, I’ve been lambasting the Recording Industry Association of America in general and the annual televised Grammy Awards bacchanal in particular, bemoaning the institution’s not-so-gradual descent into an irrelevance born of the desperate desire to grab ratings and to push recordings that are already selling, via that coveted post-Grammys sales bump.
It’s all become gross, predictable, and in many ways, a celebration of mediocrity, suggesting an underlying belief on the part of the RIAA that what sells a lot must be what’s best, because money!
Of course, the Grammys aren’t the only guilty party. In an era where the internet has decimated all the old models, nearly everyone in the media, in television and in the recorded music business is running scared, trying to find a way to monetize an “everything free, all the time” culture by any means necessary. Some of these means are decidedly undignified.
Pointing this out is not unlike shooting fish in a barrel, and I offer myself no pat on the back for doing so, knowing full well that anyone who has been paying attention could’ve and should’ve done the same. But criticizing is, generally speaking, not the most demanding task, particularly when it merely requires taking shots at something without offering any insight into what might improve that something.
So what might the Grammys do to get back on track, to reclaim some gravitas and to earn the trust of people who love and live music? How can the RIAA get its dignity back?
Over the weekend, I witnessed one possible avenue back toward the lonely light of credibility. PBS aired an event dubbed “Grammy Salute to Music Legends,” an edited version of a concert that took place at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Oct. 14.
I watched the show with a healthy amount of skepticism. But it didn’t take me long to realize that here, in a separate, standalone offshoot of the glitzy ode to pop music narcissism that is the annual February broadcast, was everything potentially good about the Grammys rolled into one. Here was the RIAA living up to its mandate – to honor and celebrate “excellence in the recording arts and sciences,” in direct contrast to the “painting a thin veneer of respectability over disposable pop music” philosophy that has increasingly appeared to be the Grammy’s modus operandi.
Did I detect the faint pulsating of hope in my doubting Grammy Grinch’s heart? I did.
In fact, my heart all but overflowed at one point during the concert/special, when jazz icon Wayne Shorter paid tribute to his friend, the pianist, composer and groundbreaking musical iconoclast Herbie Hancock, and then welcomed Hancock onto the stage. After speaking briefly, Hancock sat down at the keyboard set-up – a synth and a grand piano – and proceeded to break into a 5 minute-plus joint improvisation with Shorter on soprano saxophone. It was brave, it was brilliant, it was a testament to a lifelong musical friendship, and it was everything the Grammys usually ignore, marginalize, edit, or allow to play briefly as they cut to a commercial. Here was excellence. And here were the Grammy folks, honoring it.
Granted, you occasionally catch something of this magnitude tucked neatly into the annual Grammy Awards show, but it’s over in a flash, and we’re back to watching Kanye West attempt to upstage Beck, or whatever. Not so with the “Salute to Music Legends” – soon after Hancock and Shorter melted faces and hearts, Earth Wind & Fire was being honored for its soul-expanding funk and R&B, and then being allowed a good 10 minutes to perform, RUN DMC was being celebrated, and the likes of Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, Celie Cruz, Ruth Brown, Linda Ronstadt, Fred Foster, Jefferson Airplane and John Cage were being given their due.
The common denominator between all of these artists, who between them represent everything from jazz and the avant-garde to hip-hop and salsa? Musical excellence. Not record sales. Not glitzy outfits. Not status as pop star of the moment. Straight-up musical excellence.
If the Grammy Awards would simply live up to their own mandate, the way this “Salute to Musical Legends” did, we might have a reason to take them seriously again.